Many people are nervous about traveling these days after highly publicized airplane crashes and other horrific events. I understand their apprehension. I survived a fatal fire on what was supposed to be a leisurely riverboat cruise on the Amazon River in Peru.
Early that morning of the incident three years ago, my husband and I flew with 20 other Americans from Lima over the Andes Mountains to Iquitos, a lively but isolated city, reachable only by air or water and Peru’s gateway to the Amazon. I could hardly wait to encounter the pink dolphins cavorting in the water and the jewel-toned macaws perched high above the treetops, to say nothing of fishing for those razor-fanged piranhas. I’m a passionate traveler with a very long bucket list.
Late in the afternoon, we boarded the luxury riverboat that would be our floating hotel for the next week. My husband and I were assigned Cabin 28, one of seven on the second level. More cabins were on the first level, and an open-air lounge stretched across the third. After a multimedia safety presentation and white-tablecloth dinner of fish and palm salad, we collapsed into bed for a short sleep before the bird-watching excursion at dawn.
About 2 a.m., I was jarred by ferocious pounding and muffled yelling at our door. I dawdled at first, thinking it was a routine drill, and I was too tired. When I did open it, crewmen were running through the slim corridor, shouting, “Emergency! Emergency!” An opaque white, acrid haze assaulted my eyes and lungs. A hand yanked my wrist and a sharp voice ordered me upstairs. I screamed for my husband, who quickly followed. I was more terrified than I had ever known.
“I survived a fatal fire on what was supposed to be a leisurely riverboat cruise on the Amazon River in Peru.”
The next couple of hours were agonizing as a dozen or so travelers huddled in confused and soft whispers. My first thought was we were sinking, but that didn’t seem right because we weren’t evacuating the riverboat. The commotion on the second level continued, and we could smell the distinctive stench of burnt plastic. It was difficult to figure out which of the travelers were among us and which weren’t. We had met only that morning and hadn’t yet made friends.
Eventually a weary tour leader arrived and told us an electrical fire had erupted in Cabin 27, the one directly across from mine. The man in the cabin died of smoke inhalation before rescuers reached him. A four-person team raced the woman who was in the room into the blackened night for medical treatment in the closest village, and our riverboat was returning to Iquitos. We should return to our cabins, he said, and breakfast would be served at 8 a.m.
Our hallway by then was clear of smoke and smell. The wooden door to Cabin 27, undamaged, gave no clue to the horror that went on inside. Our cabin was just as we left it, but everything was changed. Sleep eluded me as a battery of questions ricocheted through my brain. What happened and how? Would the fire return? Would the cruise be terminated? Will the wife be okay? Her family, if she has one, will be devastated.
Ashore in Iquitos the next morning, we got another update: The wife in Cabin 27 also died during the night. Even though we didn’t know the couple, the news was shocking and heartbreaking. I was barely able to process the reality of the moment; I was stunned by the enormity of the tragedy yet deeply thankful for my husband’s and my own survival.
Our tour leaders had few answers. Those would depend on the official investigation, which was underway, they said. For now, we were transferring by motorboat to an upscale riverfront lodge where activities and excursions were planned. The fire and its fatalities were never far from mind, however, and the lack of information was frustrating.
“I was stunned by the enormity of the tragedy yet deeply thankful for my husband’s and my own survival.”
We found three days later that, in short, rigorous testing showed the fire was not caused by a malfunction of the electrical system but rather by something externally plugged into an outlet. The investigation was complete, and the riverboat was cleared by governing authorities as safe and ready to resume operations.
The tour operator’s chief executive officer fielded a barrage of questions and addressed our pent-up emotions, then presented three choices: Fly home as soon as arrangements could be made. Remain at the lodge. Or join him on the riverboat the next morning and finish the cruise.
I, along with all the other survivors, decided to go back to the riverboat. Aborting the trip would do nothing to erase that terrible night and bring the victims to life. I was nervous about approaching the scene that ended so badly for two fellow passengers, but if the CEO, tour leaders and crew were confident to cruise, so was I. I had signed up to experience the mighty Amazon River, and that’s what I did.
Almost three years have passed. My nightmares of being trapped in a burning building have largely receded, but the impact of that night lingers. I still travel far and wide ― I just do it differently.
Every place I go, I check the near and far exits. I listen to the safety announcements on airplanes, and I read the signs in hotel rooms that show where the stairwells are. I practice opening locks and swiping key fobs with my eyes closed in case I have to do it in the dark.
“My nightmares of being trapped in a burning building have largely receded, but the impact of that night lingers.”
I sleep in clothing I won’t be embarrassed for anyone to see if I’m forced to evacuate in the middle of the night. My shoes, coat, telephone, handbag, camera and keys are laid out beside the bed, where I can grab them quickly. I wear a fake gold wedding band and one pair of cheap earrings, so I don’t lose keepsakes. I’m not fearful of riverboats, although I prefer to see land I could swim to.
These practices won’t assure I survive the next tragedy, if there is one, but they might make a difference in my outcome.
The most important lesson for me is safety is an illusion. No one expects to die on vacation. But it happens, rarely and randomly, at beaches, airports, sidewalk cafes, concert halls and cruise ships. Security standards and medical availability vary tremendously around the world. We are never totally safe, not even within our own neighborhoods. Leaving home is dangerous. So is staying there.
That harrowing event was a difficult lesson in how quickly and unexpectedly life can end. The worst of circumstances can happen at any moment and at any place. I’m grateful to have not been directly affected by the fire, and ultimately, the experience won’t stop me from seeing the world. For me, the potential joys and rewards of travel are far greater.
Am I ever afraid to travel? Yes, sometimes. But not enough to stop. Just know that if someday the worst should happen, I loved every minute of the journey.
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